The invisible participants

This is quite something. The European Commission has developed a tool to monitor and assess the performance of ‘Cultural and Creative Cities’ in Europe. It is a phenomenal task, and the most sophisticated online resource of its kind I think I’ve seen. It uses 29 indicators, grouped into ‘Cultural vibrancy’, ‘Creative economy’ and ‘Enabling environment’, to compare 190 cities in 30 European countries, ranking them against other cities according to population or GDP. It makes a fascinating map in which anyone concerned with cultural policy or management will make intriguing discoveries: Nottingham is second in its employment bracket, Lisbon first in its GDP group. People can look up the city where they live and compare the picture presented here with their own experience.

But what struck me were the indicators, because, as in all research, the answer you get is shaped by the question you ask. There is a library of supporting documents explaining the methodology, which had I the time and patience to read, I’d struggle to understand. But here are the indicators of cultural vibrancy, the only group that specifically seeks to describe cultural activity, as opposed to jobs or population characteristics:

  • Sites & landmarks
  • Museums & galleries
  • Cinemas
  • Concert & music halls
  • Theatres
  • Tourist overnight stays
  • Museum visitors
  • Cinema attendance
  • Satisfaction with cultural facilities

These indicators represent institutional culture – essentially venues and visitors – because that is how an institution such as the European Commission imagines the world. It’s a useful picture, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Even the venues are incomplete: are libraries omitted because they don’t make money or because tourists don’t generally use them? But there are still almost twice as many libraries in Britain as museums.

But what concerns me here is the complete absence of community and participatory art. Where are the amateur and voluntary organisations? Reading groups? Community festivals? Informal music? Youth culture? I know that these aspects of cultural life can be hard to monitor, which is why they make such a contribution to cultural vibrancy. But including voluntary organisations – which in many countries are legally registered – would not be difficult and it would be a fair proxy for people’s cultural participation.

In A Restless Art, I argue that participation has won, in the sense of becoming normalised in contemporary life. That change, which has occurred during the course of the past 30 or 40 years, has profound implications in many areas, including cultural policy and management. But until those disciplines recognise how society is changing, they will continue to produce maps of the world that are as likely to lead us into marshes and cul de sacs, as to help us plot a course for the future.

2 comments

  1. Dear Francois
    It is now almost impossible to support the arts within London and the UK. ACE gobbles up the funding so as to maintain ‘key’ clients as well as subsidising the sector through Lottery funds and the occasional GFA grant manipulated as they wish. As you have perceived, these funds block activities for new activities or gobbling up opportunities where every other attempt is blocked. Charitable funds and resources are available, mainly to shore up ACE or matching various charitable bodies. Do we now need to look back to the 1970’s and 1980’s where grants operated successfully, enabling new work and rewarding venues with growth in the sector.
    Kathy O’Brien

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    1. Dear Kathy,
      Thanks for your comment. There are many tensions in the present system and they are likely to become more exposed if the draft strategy is adopted, because it implies quite profound shifts in priorities. But I wouldn’t want to go back to the 1970s and 1980s, where access to funds by individual artists and people working with communities was more arbitrary, and less transparent. The amount of ACE funding has grown hugely since then, as has the demand for it. We have fairer systems for matching supply and demand, though they are – in my view – punishingly difficult to navigate. Change is needed, but I don’t think the answers will be found in the past.
      Best wishes
      François

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